Labour has until March to get its caucus in order for the 2014 election.
Massey University political marketing specialist Associate Professor Dr Claire Robinson warns the party not to rule economic development spokesman David Cunliffe out of any future leadership battle, even if he is demoted to the backbenches today.
Mr Cunliffe has indicated he will back Mr Shearer today, but won't say if he will at February’s leadership review.
Under new party rules, a challenger needs the support of just 14 of the party’s 34 MPs to trigger a leadership vote.
Dr Robinson says the current debate is distracting for Labour, which only has a few more months to confirm its caucus and leadership if it has any hope of winning the 2014 election.
“I’ve been tracking voter behaviour since 1993… They need to have the team in place by the March-May period because 18 months out from an election a lot of voters – especially the more conservative voters –make an early voting decision.
"Once they make an early voting decision, even 18 months out, they’re less likely to shift from that,” she told NBR ONLINE.
Dr Robinson says if Labour is in disarray over the leader issue, and what its leadership stands for, people will still think National is providing a credible government.
She believes any change to the leadership will not come today but in February – although that may still be too late for the party.
“It is going to be destabilising. There is no doubt there is either going to be fallout from a damaging leadership tussle. Or should David Shearer lose to another candidate, they’ll go back into that period where they have to introduce a new leader, doing the backstory, introducing the wife, the kids…
"What Labour needs to be doing at that stage is presenting a whole lot of policies or ideas.”
She has compared Mr Cunliffe to former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, who lost the party’s leadership to prime minister Julia Gillard, only to later unsuccessfully challenge for it once again.
Dr Robinson says a demotion for Mr Cunliffe should he be unsuccessful in today’s leadership vote will not stop him from further challenges.
“All the signs are there. Everything he says seems to suggest he may still make a challenge in February, regardless of whether he’s demoted or not.
“The man is very ambitious. He’s been angling to become prime minister for more than 30 years – a little blip along the way isn’t going to stop him.”
Meanwhile, National’s chief whip Michael Woodhouse says he agrees with prime minister John Key’s assessment of the leadership debate.
“I think the prime minister made a comment yesterday on his way to Myanmar that Labour is being asked to be trusted with the Treasury benches and the party can’t even organise itself. I can’t say it any better than that," he told NBR ONLINE.
He says he has not spoken to National MPs about Labour’s situation and is determined not to become distracted by it.
“Even last week as the Labour conference grew closer and the pressure started to mount on David Shearer, I certainly wasn’t privy to any conversations about it.”
Mr Woodhouse says it is a distraction National does not need to be involved in. He says the party has much more important things to deal with and it does not matter to him who is leading Labour.